The Most Pervasive Abuse Tactic You've Never Heard of - That Hurts You Every Day

Time’s up on abusers turning the blame on their victims, and pretending they don’t know exactly what they’re doing.
- by Amy Lynne Johnson

It was all too eerily familiar for many women – the whole brutal, ugly mess of the Kavanaugh hearings. While some may have held out hope that justice would prevail, I knew in my heart that Kavanaugh would be confirmed, despite his appalling, abusive, and entitled behavior.  He used a tactic that has worked for centuries – and continues to be a favorite weapon of all abusers.  It’s similar to gaslighting - but takes it a few steps further. Until recently, I didn’t know it had a name, and those who use this tactic would prefer to keep it that way. 

Let’s change that, shall we?

It’s called DARVO, and was coined in 1997 – over 20 years ago - by renowned betrayal researcher, Jennifer Freyd, of the University of Oregon.  She’s been researching and publishing her findings for decades, and surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), DARVO is only becoming mainstream knowledge now.  Despite my years of work and training as a therapist, I had never heard of this acronym, and neither had any of my colleagues - and I asked a whole bunch of them! However, we all know firsthand exactly the kind of manipulation it describes. 

DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim - or the whistle blower - into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of "falsely accused" and attacks the accuser's credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation. (Freyd)

The offender thus portrays himself as the victim and his actual victims, or any whistle-blowers, as the guilty ones.

Two common types of denial are ‘It didn't happen,’ and, if it cannot be denied, then, 'It wasn't harmful'.
Attacks can be violent and effectively abusive towards the accuser, with threats of legal action, attacks on credibility, etc. 

Example: A person is accused of sexual misconduct. When confronted with this, they deny that the misconduct occurred, explaining it as consensual and acting in an outraged, affronted way, painting themselves as a hapless victim, whereas the actual victim is described as a vindictive person who the accused later rightly spurned after discovering their malicious personality. (Freyd)

Sound like anyone you know?  Yeah, I thought so. They’re all over the place these days, especially in positions of power, where it’s a particularly popular strategy in order to avoid responsibility and consequences for inappropriate, unethical, and/or criminal behavior.

But it doesn’t always have to relate to sexual misconduct, and it doesn’t have to be in dramatic fashion. In fact, it’s most common in everyday situations, from work to friendships to family dynamics, to generally accepted behavior in our society as a whole.

Like so many women, I have experienced DARVO since I can remember, in a variety of ways, from subtle to overt. Nearly every single time I was harassed at school, and reported the offending boys to the administration, I got a chorus of DARVO lingo. “It’s not that bad,” I was told. “He’s just upset because you ignored him.” “You should feel sorry for him.”  “If you weren’t so [insert negative personality trait], this wouldn’t happen to you.”

DARVO can happen in small ways that have nothing to do with sexual harassment, and can happen to people of all ages. Someone can rear-end your car on your way to work because they were texting, and they angrily say, “No, I wasn’t texting. Anyway, what were you doing there? You shouldn’t have been so slow!”

Children experience DARVO more often than we’d like to think. How many times have you seen or heard a parent suggest to a child that something is her fault that really isn’t, like crying because of daddy’s unchecked rage and self-hatred, and what a bad girl she is for making daddy’s day so much harder because she has needs, like, for instance, breathing and eating. Daddy trips over his own crap he’s left lying around the house, and screams, “Look what you made me do! You put those things there on purpose!”
Has anything like this ever happened to you?

When I confronted a coworker for yelling at several assistants about a deadline to the point of making them cry, he said, “They’re fine. They know I don’t mean it. You’re the one who is difficult to work with, you know. I think people are actually afraid of you.”  I looked like the woman in the picture. WTF?

When I reported a colleague to our state licensing board for sexually exploiting a patient - an offense on par with incest and rape in our profession - he told the division investigator that I was the one who should be under investigation for blowing the whistle on him. Yes. You read that correctly.  He accused me of causing harm to his patients – yes, even the one he sexually exploited – by reporting him and “destabilizing his patients.” He fully expected to get away with his grossly unethical (and in many states criminal) behavior. His attorneys even urged me (that’s putting is nicely) to consider how my reporting would impact his family and his ability to earn a living. Hmm. He should have considered all that before he decided to groom and exploit his patient, yet somehow I should be sensitive to how this might hurt his family, his rep, and his bank account, and therefore ignore the ethics and laws that govern my profession? Um. No. He was forced to surrender his license, all the while claiming his egregious behavior wasn’t wrong at all, but a “special exception,” (so “special” he worked hard to cover it up and destroy all evidence of it), and blaming the entire ordeal on my “poor judgment and malicious jealousy.” Righhht.
Classic DARVO.

When these and similar events occurred throughout my life, I was so confused, because I didn’t really know nor understand what was happening.  I was standing up for and protecting myself (and sometimes, other victims), and simply just doing the right thing. To see the indignant reaction of so many offenders in the face of my refusal to collude with or enable their actions - well, I couldn’t believe their audacity, entitlement, and denial.

And ladies, especially young ladies, if a man ever disses his wife and claims she is “abusive” to him, she’s “angry all the time,” even though he “tries so hard to make her happy,” that she “won’t let him” do things he enjoys, and especially if his kids are under age 7, RUN. Run like hell. The only people to whom any married man should be speaking this way about his wife are her, his therapist, his attorney, law enforcement, or the very closest of family and friends - and NO ONE that he might want to get into bed with, ever. Trust me on this one. You are certainly dealing with someone of low character and emotional immaturity, and most likely a narcissist. This is the most common type of DARVO - for a man to rationalize and justify his infidelity, and make it his wife’s fault. This is a major red flag. This flag is so red it voted for Roy Moore. Get away fast and don’t look back, no matter how convincing or sweet he seems.

The DARVO tactic is so common and compelling, I’m afraid to say that at times it worked, and I questioned myself, and wondered if the offender was right.  Did I do something wrong?  Am I really a terrible person?  Am I crazy? Maybe I could have been a little more [insert positive personality trait] about it.  And there we go again.  Women feeling responsible for the misconduct of others, particularly men behaving badly.  Learning about DARVO made it all so clear, and it was exactly the validation I needed. Now, when I see this behavior, I know I’m dealing with a very disturbed, often character disordered person, and I get real when it comes to boundaries with these types.

Now that I am aware of DARVO, I’ve decided to make it a verb.  Let’s give it a go.
“Stop DARVOing me. I can see right through you, and so can everyone else.”
“No, she didn’t make it up – he obviously DARVOed her to distract from what really happened.”
“He tried hard to DARVO the whole situation, but we all know the truth.”

Ahh. Feels good.  Try some on your own.  Share it with your friends. Most of all, speak up about it. And yes, women can be victimizers, too. Anyone, regardless of age or gender, can DARVO.

Maybe you or someone you know needs this information, to strengthen her resolve and get her fire back after abuse. 

Time’s up on this behavior.  We’ve all had enough.  Share this with everyone you know and let’s empower each other.  It may not stop people – especially narcissists and sociopaths – from using it, but when you are aware of what is actually going on, you can call them on this bullshit strategy, and you won’t fall prey to it anymore.

Questions to consider:

Have you experienced DARVO, or witnessed it happening to another?  How did you feel?

Have you “DARVOed” yourself without realizing it? How did you feel?

When thinking about the situation now in the context of this information, do you notice a change in how you feel about yourself and your experiences?